Photo/IllutrationChildren play on grounds covered with "renge-so" (Chinese milk vetch) in Toyokawa, Aichi Prefecture, on April 17. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

When novelist Kikuko Tsumura was an elementary school first-grader, she had a classmate with whom she walked home together.

Recalling one such day in May in her essay, she wonders if her friend was a butterfly or honeybee in her previous incarnation because of the total ease with which she sucked nectar from azalea blossoms.

This friend also picked flowers from shrubbery along the way and offered them to Tsumura to share.

Recalling my own childhood, I do remember putting white and purple flowers in my mouth. Not that they were particularly tasty, but it was fun to find out what those familiar flowers tasted like.

For children, spring flowers can sometimes make great "playmates." I am sure many people remember braiding white clovers and reddish purple "renge-so" (Chinese milk vetch) into wreaths and wearing them as necklaces or crowns.

Ekiken Kaibara (1630-1714), a Japanese Neo-Confucianist philosopher and herbalist of the Edo Period (1603-1867), wrote in "Yamato Honzo" (Medicinal herbs of Japan) about children in Kyoto and its environs picking Chinese milk vetch and tying their stems together to make toys.

Although youngsters playing with such toys must be a timeless sight, there are few open fields today filled with Chinese milk vetch.

In a recent survey, major toymaker Bandai Co. asked elementary and junior high school pupils where they usually play.

"Shopping mall" was the answer that ranked No. 4. Should we be saddened by this, or be impressed by the kids' resourcefulness in turning any place into their playground? But whichever it may be, it is a fact that children today have only very limited opportunities to play with living plants.

Japan's holiday-studded Golden Week is half over now, but wherever we go to visit will certainly promise a welcome change of scenery and a chance to engage in non-routine play.

--The Asahi Shimbun, May 1

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.